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Signals at Sea: An Account by Joe Rota

Joe Rota held the positions of First Class Elevator Operator, Bellboy, Waiter, and Photographer aboard the SS United States from 1955-1959 and 1964-1965. Here he recounts a surprising story from his time on the ship.

Image courtesy of Joe Rota

Joe recalls:

"I was up in the radio room next to the bridge and there must have been a dozen officers milling around, which was very unusual, and they all had their binoculars and were pointing out the starboard window. I stepped out and saw this submarine surfacing just about a couple of hundred yards off the starboard side. The thing that really surprised me was that she was keeping up with us, and we were doing over 30 knots. This sub came up and surfaced, flashed her light, and then went back down again. She might have been up for a minute.

I said 'Wow! What was that all about?' The radio operator called me in and said, 'You didn’t see anything.' Later on in the afternoon, the relief man was there, and I said, 'You’ve got to tell me what’s going on!' He said, 'That was the atomic submarine Nautilus.' And I said, 'What did she say? What message did she flash?' And he said, 'Happy Birthday.' It turns out an admiral’s wife was on board."


We love hearing stories from passengers and crew members, like Joe, who traveled with the SS United States. You never knew what was going to happen in a day aboard America's Flagship! Do you have your own SS United States story to tell? Send us an email at

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